It is easy to forget, in the twenty-odd years since the re-establishment of the Irish Film Board, in a country where there are now plentiful opportunities to study and learn film practice, and at a time when digital technology has made everyone a potential film-maker, just how difficult it was for the first wave of Irish directors who attempted to launch a career in the 1980s. Frank Stapleton was part of that vanguard. Like others from the period, his work is defined by daring and determination; balanced between an ambition to create a personal cinema and the need to make a living. At first glance his oeuvre seems characterised by an eclecticism of topics and formats, rather than a unified pursuit of themes and practices beloved of an auteurist appraisal. Yet, in retrospect, clear continuities can be traced though a portfolio of creative documentaries, TV drama, an acclaimed short and feature film and TV documentary series. Across these works we encounter an intellect that is both limpid and ludic, a visual sense that is ambitious and original, and a commitment to exploring the condition of Irishness that is imaginative, engaged and wide-ranging.
A native of Churchtown in Dublin’s southern suburbs, Frank attended the distinguished Belvedere College where, like the impressionable James Joyce before him, he came under the spell of the Jesuitical mind-set. Unlike Stephen Daedalus however, he did not initially choose an artistic vocation over a priestly calling and spent several years studying within the Society of Jesus. While still appending an ‘SJ’ to his director credit, Frank commenced a career in film, directing the subversive and inventive A Second of June (1984), a contemporary drama/documentary inspired by Ulysses (and anticipating Lance Daly’s Kisses) that focused on the day of two ordinary Dubliners against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ireland in 1984. Two years later Frank finally uttered ‘non servium’, and left the Jesuits. After a few years in London (where he developed an interest in R.D. Laing’s psychoanalytical techniques) he returned to Dublin and formed Ocean Films with producer Catherine Tiernan in 1989.
The absence of a Film Board and state funding structures for independently produced television (both the IFB and RTÉ’s Independent Production Unit would come into existence in 1993) meant that Ocean Films applied for funding wherever they could. Their first success was a prestigious but controversial commission – The Whole World In His Hands (1989) – a documentary about what Ireland had become in the ten years since the visit of Pope John Paul II, made for UK broadcaster Channel 4. Several similarly polemic documentaries followed, including two with Noel Browne (Requiem For A Civilisation, 1991; Dr Browne Also Spoke, 1992) and two in collaboration with Michael D. Higgins (Dr Browne… and 12 Days To Save The World, 1993) just before he became Ireland’s first Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (and invigorated the Irish independent film and TV sector).
Moving away from documentary and able to secure funding from RTÉ, Frank directed the short film Poorhouse (1996); an evocative adaptation of a Michael Harding story set during the Famine that featured strong central performances (notably from ‘Birdy’ Sweeney and Derbhle Crotty) and memorable visuals. Its success paved the way for what proved to be the creative highpoint of Frank’s career as a film-maker, The Fifth Province (1997); an artfully realised, unclassifiable feature from a script that Frank co-wrote with the late Pat Sheeran and Nina Witoszek (aka Nina FitzPatrick). Attracted by its startling originality, it was British Screen (Simon Perry) that first offered funding to the project, with the Irish Film Board subsequently contributing to its production. Evocatively shot by celebrated French cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer (who contributed a European sensibility to the film’s quirky tone), the film is set in the Irish midlands and is a worthy cinematic successor to the surrealistic perspective of that liminal zone inaugurated by Flann O’Brien. Once again it offered an alternative view of Ireland and its culture, challenging official or sanctioned narratives (notably in an amusing, but pointed scene about what makes a successful Irish screenplay) and centres on a maverick and dreamer in the figure of Timmy Sugrue (Brian F. O’Byrne). The film was greeted by a slew of enthusiastic reviews. Bob Quinn described it as ‘one of the few Irish films that dares to engage the intellect as much as the emotions.’
The Fifth Province was well received at film festivals (winning best first feature at the Galway Film Fleadh and the Audience Prize at Fantasporto Festival) but didn’t manage to find a distributor outside of the UK and Ireland – perhaps because it was not perceived as ‘Irish’ enough. In its aftermath Frank worked on a range of documentary series before the onset of Multiple Sclerosis prematurely stalled his career. These included Irish Dreamtime (developed with Fidelma Mullane) (2000); an ambitious six-part series exploring concepts of Irish heritage at the turn of the millennium, which he also directed. Each, in different ways, continued the work of his fiction and non-fiction films in seeking to interrogate and articulate the distinctive qualities of the Irish condition at a specific moment in time, with a bias towards the marginal, the excluded and the unorthodox. In this sense The Fifth Province stands as both a central work and guiding concept for Frank’s vision during a period of seismic change and self-questioning in Irish society; his films both products of and witnesses to those historical shifts.